Once upon a time a king asked several blind educators in his village to examine a new beast that had come into his possession and to tell him all about it. The first educator went up to touch the Literacy Lion, and then ran back to the king shouting ”This beast is made up of whole words! Yes, all sorts of words, like ”the” and ”captain” and ”sure” and ”poultry” and ”wizard” and tens of thousands more!”
Then the king signaled for the second educator to go up to the Literacy Lion, which she did, and after some time she returned to the king saying: ”This animal isn’t made of whole words! It’s made up of sounds! All kinds of sounds! Sounds like ”thhhhh” and ”buh” and ”ahhhh” and ”ayyyy” and ”’juh’ and many more! In fact, I counted them all and there are exactly 44!
A third educator was sent to examine the Literacy Lion, and he returned and exclaimed: ”This creature isn’t made up of sounds or whole words. It’s constructed out of stories, and fables, and songs, and chants, and poems, and storybooks, and Big Books, and board books, and novels, and plays, and whole libraries full of living, exciting tales, and lots more besides!
Finally, a fourth educator was sent, and she came back saying: ”You’re all wrong! This beast is made up of whole cultures, and people crying out for freedom and power, and it’s about understanding who we are and what we’re capable of, and how each of us can speak and read and write with our own voices, and in this way contribute to the good of all!” And with this final assessment, the educators proceeded to dispute noisily among themselves.
You’ve probably guessed by now that this fable is a modern take on the old Indian fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, where each blind man touches a different part of the beast (the tail, ear, trunk, and leg) and reports on it to the king as a totally different beast from the others’ accounts. This story is also a thinly disguised version of the arguments that have been swirling around for the past sixty years about the best way to give our school children access to the wonders of literacy.
This dispute can be traced back to the 1950’s when an Austrian-American named Rudolf Flesch wrote a book called Why Johnny Can’t Read, where he criticized what he called the ”whole word” approach to teaching reading (e.g. ”’Fun with Dick and Jane”), emphasizing that the focus should be instead on ”phonics.”
More recently, the biggest ”war” has been between the ”phonics” advocates and the ”whole language” proponents (see, for example, a recent article trashing a popular reading program that according to some critics doesn’t have enough phonics instruction in it).
Then there’s the most neglected, but equally important ”critical literacy” movement, which originated with the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who wrote a seminal book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed (which was banned in, of all places, Tucson, Arizona). Here the emphasis is on reading and writing as a conduit to power and freedom, especially among oppressed minorities, and the awakening of personal and community ”voice” through meaningful literacy activities.
So there you have it, folks. Four different approaches to literacy, and four different groups of people fighting (intellectually) about which one is right. The answer is . . . (the envelope is being delivered even as we speak) . . . the answer is: all of them are important (and no, you can’t say ”all reading approaches are equal but phonics is more equal than others”).
These ”reading wars” are pointless. In reality, children come to reading and writing proficiency through as many pathways as there are children. Clearly there is much at stake here (money, power, influence, scientific credibility), but not the welfare of the children involved. For them, reading is something that can be strange, scary, wholesome, or fun, depending on who is doing the instruction and what kind of vibes they are radiating. Yes, reading instruction has, I believe, more to do with the radiance of the reading teacher than any of the four parts of the Literacy Lion. So let’s lighten up about which method is the best, and embrace the best parts of each one!
For more information on creative ways to teach literacy that embrace all four schools of thought (and more), see my book The Multiple Intelligences and Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive
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